Los Angeles

Robby Herbst: My SoCal Art History

10. Occupy LA | Photo: the__photographer (Courtesy of Flickr).

The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Robby Herbst. He's interested in socio-political formations; behavioral architecture, languages of dissent and counter cultures. Exploration of these fields have lead him to visual art, writing, group work, independent media, public theory and event/exhibition organizing.

1. Waco Resurrection (C-Level) | Photo: A*A*R*O*N (Courtesy of Flickr).

1. c-level

Back about the year 2000, when Chinatown's commercial art gallery scene was blowing up, a basement space opened its red door as a loosely defined cooperative called c-level. It offered an experimental location for non-commercial play and conviviality. Previously L.A. gained familiarity with the idea of weird "feral institutions" through The Center For Land Use Interpretation and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, but c-level was something different. It didn't mount art shows -- but hosted events. The c-level cooperative had a vague notion of collectivity. They met to discuss the maintenance of the place and to plan group projects, and events, readings, screenings, and happenings. They also allowed others to do the same. These offerings could be slightly critical, but certainly smart and playful. This spirit defined the interactive live video game projects that the c-level cooperative produced together; Waco Resurrection and Tekken Torture Tournament. c-level's legacy is the clear bridge it formed here between the art world aspiring cache of Dave Mueller's slacker themed mid-to-late 1990s, Three Day Weekend art happenings and the anti-art typifying the socially leaning independent practices and spaces that followed it, lighting up the landscape of the city.

2. South Central Farm | Photo: stillthedudeabides (Courtesy of Flickr).

2. South Central Farm and its plowing

Formed directly out of the disparity of the L.A. Riots, the South Central Farm was a collectively organized 14 acre community garden in the industrial corridor of Alameda Street south of Downtown L.A. I used to take out-of-towners there to wander among the exotic and familiar plots and plants, to blow peoples perceptions open of what they thought Los Angeles was. The garden had a distinct sense of Aztlan about it. When developer Ralph Horwitz claimed domain over the land, an inspiring and tragic public battle ensued to save the farm. This defense drew upon the aesthetics of the FLSN the EZLN as well as Earth First!. It called together many progressives and radicals from across the diverse city. The farm was an object lesson in the possibility for, and defense of, an actual model for a different sorts of multi-racial eco-urbanism; this inspires dreams.

3. Sundown Schoolhouse | Photo: grifray (Courtesy of Flickr).

3. Fritz Haeg

When Fritz Haeg moved to L.A. from NY, he was just an architect. When he left for Rome in 2010 to play out his Rome Prize he was something of a Buckminster Fuller/Andy Warhol/John Jeavons/Rudolph Steiner rolled into one. This list of ten is populated by people and projects whom intimated departures from standard locations, but Fritz is specifically called out because of the sheer volume and productivity of the encounters he facilitated. From his Mount Washington geodesic dome, Haeg first organized a series of salons which drew upon and together a wide range of Los Angeles' creative community. Later, he formalized a model of encounter into an experimental school known as the Sundown Schoolhouse. This was partly in response to the precarious nature of working as an adjunct art teacher in Southern California. With an actual and regular student body the program sought to integrate many different types of learning and awareness. It stressed yoga and dance as much as it did teachings from a cast of visiting artists and writers. Finally his Edible Estates project successfully took the counter-cultural ideas on the boil at Sundown, and served them up squarely to middle class suburbia. Today, the name Edible Estates is a phrase denoting a front yard garden for your private home, by which you eat.

4. The Bicyle Kitchen  | Photo: guywilliamwelch.com (Courtesy of Flickr).

4. Bike Kitchen/ Home of Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen/Echo Park Time Bank

These are three wildly successful L.A. based projects begun in the first decade of the millennium. None of them are specifically art focused- however each draws upon and influences the community of people experimenting with ways to live. The Bicycle Kitchen is a cooperatively managed loose-membership organization that promotes the use and repair of the bicycle. Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen tend, write about, and promote forms of urban homesteading (they keep a blog, now called Root Simple, whose name changes a lot). The Echo Park Time Bank facilitates barter as an alternative to the cash economy within the fixed geography of Echo Park. All three projects respond to specific contemporary crisis (oil, food, cash). All three have seriously influenced styles of being an Angelino (Ciclavia!). Finally, as sustained and growing projects, they've expanded the horizon of what is conceivable within our city.

5. The Bike Oven | Photo: waltarrrrr (Courtesy of Flickr).

5. From a Secret Location in North East L.A

My friend Steve Anderson hosted a Fairy Ring Happening For Peace (from there mushrooms were consumed, people tripped and thought about an end to war in Iraq). The anarchist social center Flor Y Canto was located there. The Experimental Mediation Station is there Sea and Space, Park Projects, Monte Vista Projects, HM 157, Outpost For Contemporary Art, The Eagle Rock Center For the Arts, Night Gallery, Avenue 50 Studio, ESL, Public Fiction, Sundown Salon, The Poetic Research Bureau, Pieter - they are all, or were recently, there. Academia Semillas Del Pueblo, Zapatista-inspired public charter is there. Arthur Magazine had its headquarters there. The first Los Angeles Road Concert occurred upon the length of San Fernando Road. Some dude was recently dwelling in a tepee on a hillside in Lincoln Heights. Probably a matter of coincidence, but is it because N.E.L.A. faces the L.A. River that it is so gorgeously offbeat?

6. The Public School | Photo: JulieFaith (Courtesy of Flickr).

6. The Public School

Because Los Angeles arts infrastructure lacks an institution with the theoretical commitments of something like the Whitney's ISP (and its leaner meaner and less exclusive relative the Sixteen Beaver Group) and feigns a historic commitment to producing citizens/artists conversant with current theoretical trends- there is Chinatown's Public School. Several other projects have tried to address the gap between theory and practice through alternative pedagogical spaces, but to date nothing matches the vitality and openness of address that The Public School offers. Whether it's a one-off class about sewing or immaterial labor, The Public School offers waterwings for those interested in diving deep. In the intellectual life of the city, T.P.S. has hosted several critical symposia which would be too complicated and perhaps dangerous to put together elsewhere- particularly the 2010 Continental Drift led by theorist Brian Holmes known as the U.C. Strikes and Beyond. A collectively organized weekend event, it facilitated a meeting between Northern California's young Neo-Marxist radicals and Los Angeles' student, intellectual and arts radicals. The reverberations of that weekend continue to be felt in the reading lists and subsequent actions of many.

7. Slanguage | Photo: MOCA Los Angeles (Courtesy of Flickr).

7. L.A. Artists Far Into the Field

In 2006, Sculptor Alice Könitz placed her sculpture and a sleeping bag in 24-hour California Donut, a donut shop on 3rd St. Near Vermont. The provisional installation, riffing off of the shops endemic aesthetics, was meant to last 24 hours. There was a misunderstanding between the artists and the shop's owner, and sometime in the early morning Könitz left, sculpture in tow. Artist Mario Ybarra and Karla Diaz down in Wilmington turned their studio into laboratory for contemporary pop, folk, street and "rasquache" art. It's known as Slanguage. On the same plot of land where the tepee stood in Lincoln Heights, artist Liz Glynn built a large pyramid from shipping palates. There she hosted multiple performances resonating on the mythology surrounding the iconic symbol and its relationship to capital. Through Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Highland Park -- Sandra de la Loza carried on a campaign of guerrilla historical revisionism -- planting plaques that offer counter narratives to gentrification within the public square. These and other acts by artists continue a tradition started by Alan Kaprow, ASCO, and the vital feminist art movement here; pushing fine art practices far into everyday life.

8. LACMA Phantom Sightings | Photo: flao (Courtesy of Flickr).

8. March 2006 Immigrants Rights Marches and Gay Marriage/Prop 8

That California has two population groups whose rights as humans are debated as hot-potatoes, it's ridiculous. The ongoing struggle to make both identities visible and wrestling with this "otherness," has had profound impact on the contexts in which Californian's artists operate. LACMA's Phantom Sightings exhibition placed on the table many artist engaged with "post-Chicano" aesthetics, in which Latin American majority heritage is beginning to exert a hegemonic force on California's sense-of-self. There has not been a complimentary exhibition, chronicling the burgeoning queer aesthetics of artists creating within the age of "Glee" and Prop-8 (though Shared Women at LACE in 2008 came close). This twilight time for gay rights has contributed to the context that's developed such powerful practitioners as the heretics like My Barbarian, Dawn Kasper, Wu Tsang, and Zachary Drucker.

9. Machine Project | Photo: Machine Project (Courtesy of Flickr).

9. Machine Project and the Take Over LACMA and the Hammer Museum


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A founding member of c-level, Mark Allen's Echo Park based Machine Projects has exerted massive influence on Los Angeles' cultural and social landscape. A ten list of contributions to Los Angeles' art history could be written just from the projects, events, and artists Machine has embraced. The short of it is that Machine is a hybrid social center, exhibition space, social practice, and artist collective. They've repeatedly demonstrated a deft hand at presenting the anarchic and spontaneous as well thought and meaningful. Machine has shown its ebullient yet hefty weight in performing two "takeovers" of major Los Angeles arts institutions - the Hammer Museum and LACMA. In both of these engagements, Machine presented its own original works, as well as commissioned works by a large swath of LA's edgier practitioners. Their Field Guide To LACMA and their Residency at the Hammer are understood as a moment where new forms of social art redefine the possibility for hierarchical cultural institutions. (The artist collective Fallen Fruit provided a similar kind of intervention at LACMA two years later with Eat LACMA). The flip side of this moment, both for Machine and many of the artists who circulate in this frequently event based milieu, is the political economy of the relationship? In a time of cut-backs layoffs and austerity- how is it these kinds of projects can be more than short cuts for museums to boost outreach and attendance- but leave a lasting mark on the traditional relationship between museum, artist, and public? And how can the emerging field of, frequently immaterial and collective, social-practice engage with the power of a large institution without being exploited by them?

10. Occupy LA | Photo: the__photographer (Courtesy of Flickr).

10. Occupy LA

This ten list records a trajectory towards collective, event based, experimental or politically oriented practices within Los Angeles art over the past 12 years. In late 2011, the occupation of Wall Street inspired the occupation of Los Angeles City Hall. Many artists engaged with the occupation in many different manners. Among them, was a group of artist I was involved with that came to be known as AAAAAA. This loose affiliation hoped to support individuals who choose to experiment with making the Occupation a sight for creative political practice. While the worth and meaning of this strategy should be debated, AAAAAA demonstrated the power of solidarity amongst artists taking creative risks. When the occupation of City Hall was cleared out - several of our comrades were swept up in the raid. A bail fund-raiser was quickly organized- and the money collected far exceeded the need of this small group. Later, an affiliated artist was arrested on trumped up charges (later dropped) of assaulting a police officer during anti-austerity protest at UC Riverside. And again, when a call was put out to support him, a large pool quickly flowed in. While the shape of this collectivist oriented, experimental and/or politically edged work in L.A. continues to be defined by its individual practitioners- the veracity and commitment of the community was demonstrated through the Occupation.

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About the Author

Robby Herbst is an interdisciplinarian broadly interested in socio-political formations; behavioral architecture, languages of dissent and counter cultures. He is a writer, artist, teacher, and something other. He co-founded, and ...
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